If you are an English speaker and are over the age of 39 you may be pondering the fate of the English language. As the younger generations fill cyberspace with terabytes of misspelled texts and tweets do you not wonder if gorgeous grammatical language will survive? Are the technophobes and anti-Twitterites doomed to a future world of #hashtag-driven conversation and ADHD-like literature? Those of us who care are reminded of George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, in which he decried the swelling ugliness of the language at the time.
Orwell opens his essay thus,
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
My, how Orwell would squirm in his Oxfordshire grave were he to be exposed to his mother tongue, as tweeted, in 2013.
From the Guardian:
Some while ago, with reference to Orwell’s essay on “Politics and the English language”, I addressed the language of the internet, an issue that stubbornly refuses to go away. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to consider afresh what’s happening to English prose in cyberspace.
To paraphrase Orwell, the English of the world wide web – loose, informal, and distressingly dyspeptic – is not really the kind people want to read in a book, a magazine, or even a newspaper. But there’s an assumption that that, because it’s part of the all-conquering internet, we cannot do a thing about it. Twenty-first century civilisation has been transformed in a way without precedent since the invention of moveable type. English prose, so one argument runs, must adapt to the new lexicon with all its grammatical violations and banality. Language is normative; it has – some will say – no choice. The violence the internet does to the English language is simply the cost of doing business in the digital age.
From this, any struggle against the abuse and impoverishment of English online (notably, in blogs and emails) becomes what Orwell called “a sentimental archaism”. Behind this belief lies the recognition that language is a natural growth and not an instrument we can police for better self-expression. To argue differently is to line up behind Jonathan Swift and the prescriptivists (see Swift’s essay “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue”).
If you refer to “Politics and the English Language” (a famous essay actually commissioned for in-house consumption by Orwell’s boss, the Observer editor David Astor) you will find that I have basically adapted his more general concerns about language to the machinations of cyberspace and the ebb and flow of language on the internet.
And why not? First, he puts it very well. Second, among Orwell’s heirs (the writers, bloggers and journalists of today), there’s still a subconscious, half-admitted anxiety about what’s happening to English prose in the unpoliced cyber-wilderness. This, too, is a recurrent theme with deep roots. As long ago as 1946, Orwell said that English was “in a bad way”. Look it up: the examples he cited are both amusingly archaic, but also appropriately gruesome.
Sixty-something years on, in 2013, quite a lot of people would probably concede a similar anxiety: or at least some mild dismay at the overall crassness of English prose in the age of global communications.
Read the entire article here.
Image: Politics and the English language, book cover. Courtesy of George Orwell estate / Apple.